Of all the centerfire pistol cartridges manufactured today, the .44 Special is my favorite. The .44 Smith and Wesson Special was introduced in 1907 as an improved version of the .44 Russian. This cartridge is made with a slightly longer casing that could handle the new and bulkier smokeless powders of that era.
The .44 Russian was a black powder cartridge that established itself as a superb target round in the 1870s. The Russian military placed a large order to Smith and Wesson for their Model 3, break-apart revolver, chambered for this cartridge.
Early in the 20th century, Smith and Wesson decided to chamber the .44 Special in a new model called the "New Century" or Model of 1908. This particular model was also nicknamed the "Triple Lock" because of its third lock on the cylinder crane.
Many of the firearms writers of the past and a few of the present call the .44 Special the best of all the centerfire handgun cartridges ever manufactured. This includes such writers as Elmer Keith, Charles "Skeeter" Skelton and John Wootters. The late George L. Herter stated in his reloading manual that the .44 Special is more accurate than the .38 Special, but is more difficult to shoot accurately because of the larger bore or diameter of the bullet.
The late Skeeter Skelton, who was also a county sheriff in Texas, carried a Smith and Wesson model 1950 Target with a 4-inch barrel as his standard sidearm.
In 1957, Skelton purchased one of the early .44 Magnum revolvers to carry, but went back to carrying the smaller .44 Special because in his opinion "the .44 Magnum is just too much gun."
For several years, the only factory loading of the .44 Special was the 246-grain, lead round-nosed bullet. The muzzle velocity of this round is a measly 755 feet per second. This load is quite mild, but it is satisfactory in the older and smaller revolvers chambered for this cartridge. The fact is that the .44 Special has never been loaded by the factories to its velocity potential.
When the .357 Magnum was introduced in the 1930s, many people thought it was the most powerful handgun cartridge in the nation. It may have been the most powerful factory loaded handgun cartridge in the 1930s, but it was not the most powerful handgun cartridge in America. The handloaded .44 Special was. The individuals who handloaded this round took their work seriously.
Some of the large, high-quality revolvers chambered for the .44 Special made over the years has been: the Colt Single Action Army, the Smith and Wesson Triple Lock, Smith and Wesson Model of 1926, Smith and Wesson Model 21 Military, and the Smith and Wesson Model 24 Target. Heavy handloads are safe to fire in these revolvers, and they are superior for hunting and self-defense to such cartridges as the 9mm Luger, .38 Special, .357 Magnum, .44/40 Winchester, and the .45 Automatic.
Handloaded to its velocity potential, the .44 Special will make the .357 Magnum factory loads eat dust. It is just like a good heavy weight boxer beating up a good middleweight boxer.
In 1956, the popularity of the .44 Special started declining rapidly with the introduction of the .44 Remington Magnum. Colt and Smith & Wesson discontinued manufacture of revolvers chambered for the .44 Special around 1967. In the 1980s, Smith and Wesson made a short run of its Model 24 and 624 in .44 Special.
These revolvers came with 4-inch and 6 1/2-inch barrels.
Some of the factory loads of the .44 Special today are the 180-grain, jacketed hollow point bullet with an advertised muzzle velocity of 1,000 feet per second, a 200-grain jacketed hollow point bullet advertised at 900 feet-per-second, and the long lived 246-grain lead round-nosed bullet at 755 feet-per-second.
These loads are good in smaller, short-barreled revolvers currently manufactured like the 3-inch barrel Charter Arms Bulldog.
When handloading .44 Special cartridges, the reloader needs to exercise some discretion in working up loads for his pet revolver. The .44 Special is not a short-cased .44 Magnum and should not be treated as such.
If magnum-level performance is desired or needed, a magnum-type revolver should be purchased. Failure to accept this obvious but simple philosophy has led to premature retirement of many good .44 Special revolvers.